‘Bizarre foods’ found in El Cerro
Before the sun is even an hour into the sky, the fires are stoked and the water is boiling.
A table sits over an open pit, surrounded by wooden pallets. A second table is topped with a slab of white material usually used for bathroom walls, a giant cutting board unmarred in the early morning light.
Fermin Lopez’s backyard has been taken over and transformed into a site that is familiar to many throughout Valencia County. It’s a matanza.
Andrew Zimmern, chef, food writer, teacher and host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” has come to Lopez’s house to film an episode of the show dedicated to the traditional matanza.
The pig, raised by 11-year-old Brady Gabaldon, waits quietly in a nearby horse trailer. Steven Otero and a couple dozen close friends and family mill around the yard, drinking campfire coffee poured through a strainer to take out stray grounds.
“This is the original French press,” Otero laughs, brandishing the strainer.
The smoke shifts with the slight breeze, pushing people around the fires. Steam from a 50-gallon drum of hot water mingles with the smoke, the sunlight blazing through in insubstantial spears.
Then, like a ninja, a man dressed all in black appears at the courtyard gates and points a video camera at the crowd. Most of them shift back, trying to get out of the frame. But it’s no use — that’s why they are there.
“The show is all about investigating culture through food,” Zimmern says.
Since the show started in 2007, he has traveled the world, eating everything from fried crickets with string potatoes to beef tongue ice cream. Now, getting ready to launch its seventh season, Zimmerman is concentrating on strange and exotic foods found right here in the United States.
Zimmern said he insisted on making New Mexico his first stop of the season.
“There isn’t a more excellent example of something culturally important, on the verge of being lost,” he said of the matanza. “It is extremely revered by the people who are trying to keep it alive.”
When producers were looking for someone to host a matanza for filming, they contacted the New Mexico Tourism Department. The department referred them to the Spanish Colonial Arts Society Museum in Santa Fe, which, in turn, pointed them to Valencia County’s own Steven Otero.
“We have done two charity matanzas for the museum,” Otero said. “It was a great feeling that they referred Andrew and the show to me.”
So Otero put out the call and came up with what he calls a collection of “master matanzaneros” to help with the event.
When Zimmern arrives at the Lopez house, the energy jumps into high gear as cameramen infiltrate the crowd, zooming in on the fire pits and the array of knives and sharpening steels Elfego Lopez carries on his belt and in his back pocket.
“This is the guy you want,” Zimmerman says, pointing to Lopez’s backside. “The guy with all the knives.”
The first order of business is to kill the pig. Zimmern is given the honor of the shot, taken with Otero’s single action .22 rifle, a gift from his father when he was 11-years old.
One shot is all that is needed to put the pig down humanely, then the matanzaneros enter the trailer. Lopez quickly slits the animal’s throat, catching the blood in a pan. Joe Hernandez takes the pan and begins making the first dish of the day — the blood pudding.
The pig is hauled out and put on the table above the pit. Large burlap sacks are plunged into the barrel of steaming water and wrapped around the carcass. More hot water is added and soon the wood pallets are slick, keeping the men’s feet out of the inevitable mud.
As they wait for the bristles to soften, so its easier to shave, someone tells the story of a family’s first matanza.
Apparently, the folks who bought the pig weren’t entirely clear on the traditions of prepping the carcass, so when a few guys dropped by to help, they found the carcass surrounded by piles of disposable razors. The mantazaneros laugh.
Soon, nearly a half dozen men are working in concert, shaving the carcass and cleaning it. The shaving is critical for one of the special delicacies a matanza is famous for — the chicharones.
The fat is stripped off the carcass, still attached to the skin. Then the strips are diced into cubes and fried. A dash of salt completes the dish.
Hernandez whisks the blood to keep it from coagulating, adding sugar, raisins and a few other simple ingredients. Then a portion of the prized tenderloin is cooked and shredded in a giant disk before the blood mixture is added.
Zimmern stands ready with a homemade blue corn tortilla as the pudding is finished.
“Cameras. Andrew’s eating.”
Three cameramen and a sound technician, armed with a boom mic, surround the host for that first bite.
An expression of pure joy wreaths his face. Zimmern exclaims over the simple, earthy flavor of the blood pudding.
With the first dish completed to perfection, Otero begins the second dish made from the second ingredient harvested from the carcass. He slices, cubes and dices the liver, heart and kidneys of the pig. The organ meats, along with a healthy portion of onions and garlic, are sauteed in another large pan.
Between dishes, the woks, made from large tractor discs, are cleaned with salt and a soft burlap sack.
The pig is broken down to it’s most basic parts and cooked — the smell of carne adovada, carnitas, fried potatoes and scrambled eggs for some quick breakfast burritos fills the air. A steady stream of fresh tortillas emerges from the kitchen and a pan of empanadas makes the rounds.
As the food simmers, the younger folks stir the dishes with long handled paddles. The viejitos sit in the sun against a stucco wall telling stories.
Conrado Otero, Steven Otero’s uncle, remembers matanzas from his youth. His mother made blood pudding, but instead of cooking it over an open fire, she put it in a dish and baked it.
“Everybody does it a little bit different,” Conrado said. “When I was a kid, after everything was cooked, our job was to take a plate to all the neighbors. Then the next week, they would do the same thing.”
Zimmern said there was something really exciting about seeing the matanza process firsthand.
“Breaking down a hog start to finish, they use everything. You’re looking at an all-star squad here,” he said. “And then, hanging out with everybody together, being part of someone’s family for a day. It’s really special.”
He called Otero spending a hour sitting on the ground, stirring the flat pan of carnitas and diced potatoes a “labor of love. This is what’s it’s all about. The sharing of food, the community, the love.”
While matanzas are part of life for Otero, he is hopeful that exposure the show will excite and create a sense of pride among the people of the Rio Abajo Valley.
“It is a tradition that I have seen fade away as years pass, so we, today’s generation, should try hard to pass this tradition on to our children,” Otero said.
At the beginning of the filming, Otero said he was nervous and that showed when he kept addressing Zimmerman as “Mr. Zimmern. He insisted I address him as Andrew. I, as well as everyone else, found him very down to earth. His film crew were all very respectful and humble people.”
Otero wasn’t the only county resident to be utilized on the show. Lana and Monte Fastnacht live in Bosque Farms, but run a buffalo operation on 5,000 acres of land on the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe.
For more than a decade, they have hosted buffalo hunts on the land, as well as provided fresh buffalo meat to Santa Fe restaurants and at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Before coming down to El Cerro and partaking of the pig, Zimmern spent a day at the Fastnacht operation, where he shot and killed a large mature bull.
“He wanted to do the old west cooking and tasting over an open fire,” Lana Fastnacht said. “He did the kidneys, testicles, liver and heart.”
A picture on Zimmern’s Facebook page shows a cobalt blue enamelled plate with the remnants of a meal of buffalo liver, testicles, potatoes, roasted chiles and sweet vinegar.
Fastnacht said Zimmern did the hunt on horseback and it turned out to be a rather exciting day.
“Two different bulls charged the group,” she said.
Fastnacht said she didn’t really know who Zimmern was until he and the camera crew arrived.
“The editor of Edible Santa Fe magazine, Kate Manchester, is a friend of mine. She called me and said there’s some people coming interested in buffalo,” she said. “So they booked their hunt and paid the deposit, just like anyone else. He was just a regular Joe. Very relaxed and nice.”
The head of the record-book buffalo Zimmern shot is at a taxidermist in Belen, Fastnacht said. She estimated that it would be one of the top 50 in the world based on it’s horn measurements.
She said the head has to sit for 30 days before the final measurement is taken and recorded for posterity.
“It’s one thing to go to a restaurant and eat what they do,” Fastnacht said of Zimmern. “But I don’t know how many have the opportunity to be the hunter.”
Contact Julia M. Dendinger